No man’s sky (cover)


Popular Mechanics (South Africa) - - Cotents -

Africa gets set for a drone rev­o­lu­tion


and I’m 25 years old. I was born in a vil­lage on the slopes of Mount Kenya, about 400 kilo­me­tres out­side of Nairobi,” says a tall, slen­der, unas­sum­ing-look­ing man. The au­di­to­rium seems un­moved by his story. Un­der­stand­ably, be­cause it’s day two of the con­fer­ence and it’s right be­fore the lunch break. The pro­fes­sional drone in­dus­try in South Africa is also dom­i­nated by the kind of men who went all-in on the idea of South African en­gi­neer­ing ex­cel­lence lead­ing the con­ti­nent. The speaker tries again. “From a young age, I was al­ways fas­ci­nated by tech­nol­ogy, par­tic­u­larly air­craft.” It’s a fas­ci­na­tion that turned into prac­ti­cal ex­pe­ri­ence, he ex­plains. He re­calls how he was the first per­son in his coun­try to suc­cess­fully de­sign, build and fly a fixed-wing drone.

It doesn’t mat­ter. He’s los­ing the crowd. Ev­ery­one in the room at least knows of some­one who built their own multi-ro­tor un­manned aerial ve­hi­cle (UAV).

“In January, I started my em­ploy­ment at As­tral Aerial, a sub­sidiary of As­tral Avi­a­tion, and along with my two col­leagues we’re in­ter­ested in so­lu­tions to last-mile de­liv­ery prob­lems in Africa. We are ad­dress­ing this with an in­no­va­tion called the Flyox. This drone has a pay­load ca­pa­bil­ity of 2 050 kg and an in­cred­i­ble range of 1 240 km. It is also ca­pa­ble of water land­ings.”

The room has sud­denly gone quiet, aw­fully quiet.

Nyaga ploughs on. His video pre­sen­ta­tion shows a cargo plane tak­ing off and land­ing in a very shal­low pud­dle. There’s no pi­lot in­side.

The si­lence has deep­ened. But the au­di­ence is wide awake now.

“The drone can stay up in the air for twenty-six hours in sur­veil­lance mode, but we’ll mainly use it for cargo in the hu­man­i­tar­ian space and crop sur­vey­ing. At As­tral we also have a sur­veil­lance drone called Guardian Eye that has a pay­load of 7,5 kg and now an ex­tended flight time of eight hours af­ter we added so­lar pan­els on the craft.”

To put it in per­spec­tive: Denel’s Bateleur drone is the lo­cal en­durance cham­pion, with flight times be­tween 18 and 24 hours. It is, how­ever, a military drone and builds on Denel’s im­pres­sive-for-the-90s Seeker. To achieve a third of that flight time with­out military fund­ing is crazy.

But projects like Flyox and Guardian Eye aren’t the stars of As­tral Aerial’s show. In­stead it’s the com­pany’s award­win­ning con­cept for un­manned air traf­fic man­age­ment that in­tends to rev­o­lu­tionise the con­ti­nent’s drone poli­cies. The plan is to sep­a­rate the sky into high­ways, al­most. In a sim­i­lar move, Ama­zon is de­vel­op­ing air traf­fic con­trol soft­ware for its un­manned de­liv­ery drones to in­te­grate seem­lessly into ex­ist­ing air traf­fic. “It will en­able safe low-al­ti­tude drone op­er­a­tions, pro­vid­ing airspace ac­cess and ge­ofenc­ing, real-time iden­ti­fi­ca­tion and sep­a­ra­tion of air­borne traf­fic, and flight plan­ning in­clud­ing con­tin­gency man­age­ment and se­vere weather avoid­ance,” said the com­pany in a May 2017 state­ment, ahead of rolling out de­vel­op­ments in France.


Nyaga re­vealed to Pop­u­lar Mechanics that Flyox is un­der­go­ing test­ing for an Alibaba sub­sidiary. Kenya seems to be the per­fect stag­ing ground for this in­no­va­tion for two rea­sons: l Ama­zon doesn’t have a large pres­ence l There are no real street ad­dresses out­side of the city cen­tres, which cre­ates a larger mar­gin for er­ror. Flyox would then be used, for in­stance, to courier pack­ages from Nairobi to Nyaga’s home vil­lage.

“As you know, Africa is very vast. Six­tytwo per cent of Africans, me in­cluded, live in ru­ral ar­eas. What is more ex­cit­ing is that 60 per cent of the pop­u­la­tion (con­ti­nen­tal) com­prises the youth, who have adopted tech­nol­ogy. Drones have spread from South Africa through­out the rest of the con­ti­nent,” ex­plains Nyaga.

“My col­leagues and I are in­ter­ested in so­lu­tions to last-mile de­liv­ery prob­lems in Africa”

But drones have not filled the Kenyans with un­bri­dled en­thu­si­asm. Es­pe­cially when it comes to pub­lic use. “That has been in­formed by the prob­lems we have en­coun­tered in de­tect­ing low-fly­ing drones. To counter this, we have de­vel­oped a frame­work to de­tect and leg­is­late drones and are in­ter­fac­ing that with the leg­is­la­tors.”

As­tral Aerial is set­ting out to make sure that drones don’t en­croach on com­mer­cial airspace. The plan is a sys­tem of ge­ofenc­ing around restricted airspace such as hos­pi­tals and em­bassies.

The com­pany is also seek­ing to es­tab­lish com­mon oper­at­ing stan­dards for all op­er­a­tors to work on a com­mon plat­form through which in­for­ma­tion will be shared. Ul­ti­mately, the sys­tem is in­tended to in­te­grate the com­pany’s drones into in­ter­na­tional airspace. A smart move for a com­pany sell­ing a cargo drone with the abil­ity to cross bor­ders.

DRONE CON IS THE YOUNGEST OF THREE drone in­dus­try con­fer­ences in South Africa, but still the or­gan­is­ers man­aged to as­sem­ble a wide va­ri­ety of speak­ers from all spheres of com­mer­cial UAV op­er­a­tions. Our lo­cal in­dus­try, although dom­i­nated by min­ing and con­ser­va­tion op­er­a­tions, also sup­ports a healthy land sur­vey­ing and film com­mu­nity. The event was or­gan­ised by United Drone Hold­ings and chaired by its CEO Sean Reitz. To be fair to Mr Reitz, it was al­most solely his baby. Which is by no means a bad thing.

In his snap­shot sum­mary of the macroe­co­nomic im­pact of the South African drone in­dus­try 2017, econ­o­mist Dr Roelof Botha es­ti­mated the year-ending turnover at two bil­lion rand. There’s also said to be 24 667 jobs re­lated to un­manned avi­a­tion. “In the EU, by 2021 they’re ex­pect­ing to have seven mil­lion drones in the air for leisure ac­tiv­i­ties and 3,5 mil­lion in the US,” he says. The tech­nol­ogy’s per­va­sive­ness trans­lates into smaller but equally im­pres­sive num­bers on the com­mer­cial side: 400 000 in the EU and one mil­lion in the US. “Fifty thou­sand drones are regis­tered in the US ev­ery month. That is un­be­liev­able. The value of drone-re­lated ac­tiv­ity in the EU is es­ti­mated at 10 bil­lion Euro per an­num over the next decade, which is al­most dou­ble our total agri­cul­ture pro­duc­tion.”

Those num­bers sug­gest that drones are a far big­ger thing than we could ever have imag­ined. “The tim­ing of the launch of a one-ton ca­pac­ity drone in China is 2019, which re­lates to re­search done there on the cost sav­ing of de­liv­er­ing by drone. And it’s some­thing like 70 per cent,” he con­tin­ues. Botha be­lieves that th­ese num­bers should be ver­i­fied and sent through to gov­ern­ment so that the law­mak­ers can be bet­ter in­formed about the cost and then act in the in­ter­ests of grow­ing the in­dus­try.

The South African Civil Avi­a­tion Author­ity es­ti­mates that, for ev­ery regis­tered re­mote pi­lot aerial sys­tem (RPAS) in the sky, there are two or three un­li­censed craft. The num­ber of RPASES regis­tered each year grew from 216 in January of 2016 to 465 in 2017. Re­mote pi­lot li­censes stood at 33 in 2016 and a year later had in­creased ten­fold. It’s clear to see that there is ram­pant il­le­gal ac­tiv­ity hap­pen­ing within the sec­tor.

Al­bert Msithini, Civil Avi­a­tion Author­ity RPAS project lead, ex­plained that the reg­u­la­tory chal­lenges stemmed from the ex­po­nen­tial boost in the num­bers of small airspace users, the low cost of per­sonal avi­a­tion and the fact that th­ese air­craft are de­signed by mainly non-avi­a­tion en­gi­neers. Though his com­ments weren’t an at­tack on the en­gi­neer­ing ex­per­tise be­hind some of the com­mer­cially avail­able drones, it must be made clear that drone man­u­fac­ture is a largely un­reg­u­lated in­dus­try.

South Africa’s avi­a­tion au­thor­i­ties are com­mit­ted to align with global RPAS de­vel­op­ments, Msithini says. It’s also con­fi­dent, he adds, that drone tech­nol­ogy will im­prove avi­a­tion safety and re­duce re­lated costs. But in the midst of all that pos­i­tive talk there’s the re­al­i­sa­tion that ma­li­cious in­tent and po­ten­tial threat will ex­ist. And, in re­sponse to that, the au­thor­i­ties will al­ways err on the side of cau­tion.


de­scribe the re­la­tion­ship be­tween com­mer­cial drone op­er­a­tors and their com­mer­cial avi­a­tion coun­ter­parts in South Africa. This emerged on Day One of the con­fer­ence. The im­pas­sioned plea from Com­mer­cial Avi­a­tion As­so­ci­a­tion CEO Leon Dill­man dur­ing his key­note: be­come part of the so­lu­tion.

That prob­lem Dill­man was al­lud­ing to is the tight con­trols the CAA has im­posed on drone flight. It is al­most im­pos­si­ble to be­come a cer­ti­fied op­er­a­tor un­der the cur­rent in­dus­try reg­u­la­tions, which re­quire busi­ness plans and mul­ti­ple-per­son com­mand chain or­gan­i­sa­tions as part of the ap­pli­ca­tion. This set-up pro­tects the cur­rent com­mer­cial op­er­a­tions li­cence hold­ers, but sti­fles the in­dus­try as a whole, es­pe­cially small busi­nesses such as wed­ding pho­tog­ra­phers.

Cur­rently, there’s a big push for a tiered sys­tem of op­er­a­tor li­cences. The good news is that the broader in­dus­try sup­ports this.

The other im­por­tant con­cern do­ing the rounds at the con­fer­ence is the holy grail of com­mer­cial op­er­a­tions: be­yond vis­ual line of sight (BVLOS). Retief Gouws of Denel Dy­nam­ics whet ap­petites with tales of the Seeker drone BVLOS test­ing. If you thought drone tech­nol­ogy was a new thing, you’re wrong. Seeker was in­tro­duced in 1986 and re­tired in 1994. A few are still in op­er­a­tion, hunt­ing rhino poach­ers, but the Seeker was mainly de­ployed dur­ing the bor­der war.

Tech­nol­ogy flows down­hill, with the military at the very top and the likes of land sur­vey­ors prof­it­ing from the scraps of com­bat. Then it moves into the mines, agri­cul­ture and, ul­ti­mately, to the gen­eral pub­lic. While all the stands on the con­fer­ence expo floor had a DJI Ma­trice as the main rig, where you saw cus­tom craft, you could be sure that it was meant for some­thing higher up in the heirar­chy.

On the land sur­vey­ing side, the Li­dar sys­tems run into mil­lions of rand. That’s just the cam­era, not even the cost of the drone. Ex­ca­va­tion and min­ing use re­mote det­o­na­tors that can also be con­sid­ered as drones be­cause of their un­manned nature.

The over­rid­ing im­pres­sion is this: if you could crit­i­cise the South African drone in­dus­try of one thing, it would never be about the pro­fes­sion­al­ism. Naivety, how­ever, seems ram­pant.

Flyox is years ahead of anything our com­mer­cial op­er­a­tors are work­ing on. In one video that gazed into the fu­ture of drone ap­pli­ca­tions, there was a quad­copter in­side an elab­o­rate mesh ball do­ing pipe in­spec­tions. The tech­nol­ogy and its associated ap­pli­ca­tions is still a new con- cept on our shores, but it seems as though the wow fac­tor has stunned our in­no­va­tors into si­lence.

Yes, DJI has achieved some­thing amaz­ing. It keeps on im­prov­ing its prod­ucts, to the point where it has a drone for ev­ery ap­pli­ca­tion. But surely there are niche in­dus­tries that re­quire some­thing unique? Why was Takealot not at the con­fer­ence to talk about its move­ments in the drone de­liv­ery space?

The South African drone in­dus­try is alive and well and busi­ness may be boom­ing, but faces a com­bi­na­tion of over-cau­tious reg­u­la­tion and a com­mu­nity of li­censed op­er­a­tors that is stuck in a para­dox of want­ing to ring-fence its econ­omy and want­ing to get more in­no­va­tion into the sec­tor. Two-bil­lion-rand in­dus­tries aren’t built in a day; for­tu­nately, con­ver­sa­tions at events like Drone Con are lay­ing a solid foun­da­tion for the em­pire to come.



1. Guardian Eye is As­tral Aerial’s sur­veil­lance and in­spec­tion drone.

2. Flyox can land on water and un­paved run­ways. 3. The Flyox ground sta­tion can fit in­side of a stripped-out Vito. 4. Kinyua stunned Drone Con with the Flyox.


Geoffrey Nyaga Kinyua holds a B Eng de­gree in aero­nau­ti­cal en­gi­neer­ing from the Tech­ni­cal Univer­sity of Kenya, the poster child for African mil­len­nial dis­rup­tion.


The drone demo area was the ex­hibitors’ space to show off their tech­no­log­i­cal prow­ess. In­ac­ces­si­ble to plebs like us.

As­tral Aerial’s uni­ver­sal air traf­fic man­age­ment con­cept won the com­pany a $20 000 In­ter­na­tional Air Trans­port As­so­ci­a­tion Cargo in­no­va­tion Award at the 2017 World Cargo Sym­po­sium.

The DJI Phan­tom is like the iphone of UAVS, it changed pub­lic per­cep­tion of an en­tire in­dus­try and is the rea­son most pi­lots get their RPL.

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